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When the official language is no one’s language

On my previous position, I worked for a product company, and when we set the domain language of the product, we were pretty much free to set our own terms. We were building a product and while discussing with the customers, we would anyway be using the terms used by the customers. I guess when you work with customers which are part of a more homogenous group, you can set terms which works for all or at least most customers, but in our case, customers used the same term for very different things. The strategy then was finding a term which the customers didn’t use and in that way not creating misunderstandings. But at the same time finding a term which they could relate to. In other case, we tried finding the right synonym.

So, when I started working for my current employer, I didn’t expect this problem to become an even harder nut to crack. I work for TUI Nordic, which is a Nordic leisure travel company. We have local companies in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. The company language is English. So, which terms should I use?

If we just look at our employees that are not overseas (that is on one of our destinations), most of them spend most of the time talking to people in their own country, which means they speak their own language. Some of the time is spent talking to Nordic colleagues, which means that we sometimes speak our own languages and in some cases we speak English. The latter scenario is more common when one of our Finnish staff members is present, since the Finnish language is very different from the other Nordic languages.

The room for misunderstandings is big for many reasons but one of the biggest is words and the domain language. We most commonly use our local terms for things but when we discuss things we use English terms, which no one uses in other situations. The problem is also aggravated by the fact that the local companies were previously not part of the same company, so the Nordic aspect has been added much later and after the local domain language was formed.

When you’re having a discussion, you can of course ask someone if you don’t understand. But how do you know that you’ve not understood? Just yesterday I learnt after one year at my job that price reduction is used for something different than discount. I had no idea that I would need to clarify those terms and these were the Swedish terms which I didn’t think to question. But in a conversation there is at least a possibility to discuss these terms.

When it comes to written material, things are even harder and I often find myself struggling to find the right words. Since the people I work with in most cases didn’t use the word I’m using (this we in most cases use our local language), I must myself choose the right translation. I don’t have a perfect solution right now, so I’m open for idea. What I’m trying to do is that I add the Swedish term in a parentheses. In this way, the business people can see which term I tried translating.

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Categories: Agile
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